Honore Daumier Exhibit

April 25, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: Honoro Daumier, the famously prolific, politically infamous lithographer — in thousands of cartoons printed in newspapers, Daumier pricked the pretensions of 19th century France. The show from Paris and Ottawa now at Washington’s Phillips collection also highlights his genius as a three dimensional caricaturist and as one of the most influential painters of his era. But to set the scene let’s begin with the NewsHour’s first ever cartoon quiz. For which of these pictures was Daumier sent to prison? Was it “Rue Transnonain,” depicting the slaughter of innocent Parisians not long after the Revolution of 1830? Harvard’s Jim Cuno explains.

JIM CUNO, Harvard University: The army rushed and indiscriminately murdered these people. And the gravity of the figure of the man, who has fallen onto his child– he’s dead; the child dead– and the intimacy of this domestic room was profoundly moving to people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or was Daumier jailed for this attack on the French courts? Eliza Rathbone, curator at the Phillips, says the magistrates are contemplating a bloody shirt and knife.

ELIZA RATHBONE: Hideous evidence of crime on the table in front of them, and they all look so bored, wondering, when do we go to lunch? And above them, of course, you can see the bottom part of the crucifixion hanging behind them.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or was Daumier locked up for his “Hanging the king: Louis- Philippe in effigy as a pear”?

SPOKESMAN: And it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to go from this pear to that part of the human body that has these round, bulbous-shaped forms and long cylindrical neck. And that is a lampoon of the king that persisted through five years before ultimately the September laws were enacted, which made it impossible to publish political caricatures.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or finally, was the go-to- jail cartoon “the king as monster”? The show’s audio tour, from the national gallery of Canada, explains.

NARRATOR: Seated on a commode in the middle of the place de la Concorde, we see the giant figure of Gargantua, alias Louis-Philipe, greedily devouring money being provided by the nation’s poor. The royal digestive process complete, ribbons and commissions fall beneath his seat into the eager hands of a crowd of politicians gathered outside the Chamber of Deputies.

PAUL SOLMAN: Okay, while you’re working on the answer, a little context. From the 1830’s through 1870’s, France kept switching between despotism and democracy. Repressive regimes were the rule, revolutions the cure, insensitive bureaucracies the constant. Daumier mocked those in power, mostly in lithographs for the newspaper “le charivari.” Even his boss, activist publisher Charles Philipon, was the subject of caricature. But the king was Daumier’s first great theme. “The King as Pear” was actually Philipon’s idea, but in lithos like the three-faced past, present, and future, Daumier magnified the metaphor. Doug Marlette, who’s identified with Daumier since he started cartooning 30 years ago, loves how “The Pear” encapsulates the king’s status quo regime.

DOUG MARLETTE: It’s distilling it to an essence. I mean, you know, what the entire impulse for political cartooning is trying to get things across in a minimum of lines, an essential quality. And finding his countenance in a pear, which meant something in France. The word le poire means fat head. You know, drawing the king as a fat head. (Laughs) It has layered meanings. My favorite cartoons are wordless cartoons, drawings where the image is saying everything. You know, I once drew Bob Dole as a hand grenade, his face on a hand grenade. It was Dole’s Pineapples, but it didn’t require much explanation.

PAUL SOLMAN: From bob dole’s temper to his kudzu comic strip, Marlette’s pen has been tough– to some, offensive. He’s had cartoons killed, like this one of former attorney general Ed Meese dissing the Bill of Rights. But Marlette was never jailed for his backside swipes at authority which brings us back to our Daumier cartoon quiz. And while King Louis-Philipe did have “Rue Transnonain” confiscated, the most egregious cartoon was “The King on the Pot,” which landed Daumier in the can for six months, plus a 500-franc fine– thousands in today’s dollars. Daumier kept cartooning from the beginning of his career to the end. But, despite his high standing among other artists– the poet Baudelaire called him the Michelangelo of caricature– he spent much of his life in debt. When things got too hot for politics, he would turn to safer subjects: The perils of Paris in the 1850’s, crossing its new broad boulevards, proto- feminists, pursuing their art at the expense of their kids. But as you may know, Daumier saved his bitterest barbs for lawyers. The caption on this cartoon reads, “Dear Colleague, you’re going to argue today against me, just what I argued against you three weeks ago in an identical case?” To which the other lawyer says, “And I’m going to use your response.” Frankie Sue del Papa is the attorney general of Nevada.

PAUL SOLMAN: Has this ever happened to you?

FRANKIE SUE DEL PAPA: Well, actually, in a case that we’ve got going on right now, someone accused me of arguing the opposite way in a different case several years ago. It’s clearly something that could happen.

PAUL SOLMAN: Edwin miller is a retired lawyer. So you knew guys like this?

EDWIN MILLER: Oh, yes. They didn’t look like that because they didn’t wear their hair that way, but they had the same attitudes. He’s bragging about that fine point he made and they’re enjoying the humor and how well he pulled it off. He’s pretty slick I’d say.

PAUL SOLMAN: Pretty slick.

EDWIN MILLER: That fellow on the right, yeah.

PAUL SOLMAN: Daumier did nearly 5,000 cartoons, but only a few hundred paintings, rarely shown or bought in his lifetime. Yet it’s works like “The Uprising” of 1848 that give Daumier his current standing as a progenitor of modern art: No frills, no fuss, the real world as it looks and feels to the artist.

ELIZA RATHBONE: Daumier is giving us what he would have seen right there in the streets, the street just packed with people, and the drama of this leader, who the others are riveted by and going to follow.

PAUL SOLMAN: The style suits the subject: Bold, dynamic, dramatic; a modern cartoon on canvas.

ELIZA RATHBONE: The handling of the paint around his head and on his sleeve is just… There are just a few dashes of paint. And then his arm that goes up to the top left corner, almost bursting out of the painting. I think it’s the composition and these incredibly swift strokes that are so expressive of this moment. The artist’s gestures all contribute to the subject and the feeling.

PAUL SOLMAN: The subject and the feeling. Daumier worked hard to merge them. You can see his efforts in successive versions of the “Third Class Carriage” and its main characters: The old woman, the young one, the sleeping boy, the traveling box. The old woman is older in the more finished work; the young one younger; the sleeping boy is de-emphasized, less cute; the traveling box is turned and highlighted for the artist’s signature, this being a commission. Daumier kept trying to capture, quietly, the collector looking quietly at art; the inspired artist, lit up by an unknown source; the weight of being poor, which the struggling Daumier and his large family knew firsthand; the silhouetted, windswept anonymity of being a refugee. Jim Cuno, though, thinks Daumier’s style matched his subject matter in an even larger sense.

JIM CUNO: He was a painter with allegorical ambitions. When you look around the gallery and you see these great paintings of immigrants parading through, great masses of people parading through indeterminate landscapes with generalized features, not with individual features. The fugitives could be the exodus. The woman with her child could be Hagar and Ishmael. There’s a biblical depth to these pictures, a generalized human condition that I think he’s trying to paint.

PAUL SOLMAN: You see it most clearly in Daumier’s final and favorite theme, says curator Rathbone: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

ELIZA RATHBONE: We see his tremendous interest in not as an illustrator, not to describe incidents in the book in any detail at all, unlike his contemporaries, but instead his desire to express their human experience, what he found in Cervantes’ book about human experience– the aspirations of Don Quixote, and then the human folly that the book is full of.

PAUL SOLMAN: The art historian sees something more specific.

JIM CUNO: I think these are among the most personal images for Daumier. This is an image, after all, of a man as an artist, as a man of great imagination, imagination that turns to madness at the end of his life. And we have to think of Daumier looking at this, painting this picture thinking of his own father, who died insane, who died mad, and who was an aspiring author all his life.

PAUL SOLMAN: And last of all, what does the political cartoonist see?

DOUG MARLETTE: Don Quixote is a wonderful symbol and image for the political cartoonist, for the social satirist — you know, the tilting of the windmills, the idealism, the line, the uplift of the lanky, elongated form, and then Sancho Panza who was, you know, down in the dirt, in the muck, and – you know — squished down onto the planet earth. You know, in satirists there’s always kind of the disappointment in the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: And in artists, Daumier might say, there’s always the possibility of transforming disappointment into delight.